25 January 2015

The Khagan Weekly: Winded Since 2014 (2:3, 01/25/2015)

Into the Southern Alps
New Zealand has a mountain range that runs the length of the South Island known to the world as the Southern Alps, mostly because they look remarkably similar to the European Alps. This last week, Kara and I traveled south to the small city of Queenstown tucked deeply into this range on the banks of a large lake. The glacier-covered peaks surround the lake, while more heavily glaciated mountains can be found at the heads of the major valleys. The lake radiates a foggy blue quality that is quite fascinating. What is more fascinating, though, is that the lake is actually drinkable. It is 99% pure, which is more clean than most bottled waters. We even had a glass of lake water, proffered by a tour boat skipper who took us around the lake with a large family of Chinese tourists and two confused Europeans of unknown origin.

The town of Queenstown is very much a tourist resort, though fortunately everyone has to work to get there—no cruise ships! In the winter, the town is a ski resort; in the summer, it is a backpackers' convergence. And it was busy. Despite raining for all four days that we were there (it wasn't too bad), every hotel, hostel, bed and breakfast, and lodge was booked full. Fortunately we got in when we did. Our hostel had a beautiful view of the city, the lake, and the nearby mountains, including the one that had a world-famous gondola ride up it. The downside was that parking was limited and we were up a steep hill, which meant unhappy hikes into town.

On Glaciers
The glaciers were amazing, and we got right up close to one of them. On a side trip on our first full day in the town, we traveled north to the Rob Roy Glacier. This glacier sits high above a steep gulch overlooking a narrow river flood plain. All of the waters were such a foggy blue that they could only be glacially-fed. In fact, glaciers capped all the surrounding peaks, but Rob Roy was one of the more accessible ones. We took a two-hour uphill hike through light forests in rain and heavy wind, finally passing above the tree line to find a spectacular view of the hanging glacier. Most of it sits atop the adjacent hill, but a part hangs over the edge and occasionally cleaves, falling into the ravine below (though not when we were there). It was quite a sight. The climb back was slightly shorter but felt longer since there was little to anticipate. The glacial creek that ran beside the trail was very loud, too, and the wind at the end of the trail was not so bad as when we began on it, but was still fierce.

The next day, we traveled north above Queenstown again, but this time following around the lake. The road became dirt and required a few fords, which we traversed, and a one that we decided against attempting. Again, high hanging glaciers sat in nooks and crannies among the surrounding mountains. On the way to this place, we passed through Paradise, our first Hobbit location in New Zealand. Paradise and the nearby Diamond Lake were the setting for Beorn's house in the second film.

Finally, on our journey home, we passed two massive artificial lakes that power most of the South Island via hydroelectric dams. These lakes, too, were glacial in origins and Mount Cook, the tallest point in the country, could be seen at the head of one of them, shrouded slightly in clouds. We last saw Mount Cook from the West Coast at Fox Glacier. With so many glaciers around, it is amazing to think how many more there once were. Photos of Rob Roy, Fox, and other glaciers that we have seen, taken in the 1800s, show much larger and more impressive bodies of ice than are visible today. A generally warming climate and the hole in the ozone layer above New Zealand have rapidly shrunk these ice age remnants to little more than snowballs.

The Other Southern City
On the drive down to Queenstown, we spent two nights at Dunedin (do-NEE-din), an old Scottish settlement that became famous as a gold rush settler drop-off point in the 1860s. The town is famous mostly for its heavily-photographed train station, which looks nice but is totally going to fall to bits whenever the city experiences its long-overdue mega-earthquake. The town sits at the end of a very long and deep bay which formed inside the mouth of an extinct volcano, much like Christchurch's Lyttleton harbour and nearby Akaroa. The high ridges along the side of the bay are beautiful, with trees, pastures, and crags. The beaches on the east side of Otago Peninsula are famous for their remoteness and their status as penguin breeding grounds, although only a few actually play host to penguins. At the end of the peninsula, albatross and seagulls also breed and raise their young. One such seagull, apparently quite happy with its newfound ability to fly, even graced me with some sample guano on my hair. So kind of it.

On the first evening we were there, we visited one of the remote beaches, located at the end of a long dirt road. A few fur seals were hanging out on the sands, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. A heavy mist didn't keep us there for long. The next day, the peninsula was so fogged-in that we couldn't see much of the beautiful scenery. Foolishly, we drove the top of the ridge and found ourselves with about 50 metres visibility. Not a fun ride, to be sure. The last day, when we left, it was perfectly clear and we finally got our wonderful views. We stayed on the peninsula at an AirB&B (i.e., private house) and traveled to the city during the day. We visited two wonderful museums, went on a tour of the New Zealand Cadbury factory, and contemplated climbing the steepest hill in the world—Baldwin Street, for the record, and no, we didn't climb it. Overall, we probably won't go back to Dunedin, but it seemed to be a nice city, if only the weather were nicer.

The Great New Zealand Gold Rush
It seems ever decent-sized newly-founded land gets its gold rush, and New Zealand had three of them. The most famous was the Otago Gold Rush, which lasted from 1861 to 1864. A few local farmers found the gold and tried to keep it a secret, but that didn't last long. 18,000 people came from all over the world to New Zealand, swelling the population of the South Island. Many of their descendant still live there today. Arrowtown, located about 20 minutes from Queenstown, was one of the biggest mining centers and still retains this lovely charm much like parts of Sonora, California, today. Many of the town's old buildings are still standing, used as commercial storefronts or private residences. The old bank has been turned into a relatively large and very impressive local history museum. The majority of the local mining was on the Arrow River at Macetown, up a steep gorge from Arrowtown. The town no longer exists except for a few preserved structures. It is inaccessible except to 4WD vehicles and hikers. At the start of this trek, one also encounters the site used in The Lord of the Rings where Arwen halts and drowns the ringwraiths. Nearby, the spot where King Isildur is jumped by a band of orcs and loses the One Ring was also filmed. Fun times! Seriously, there is Hobbit and LotR stuff everywhere in New Zealand if one knows where to look.

Driving & Distances
Let me tell you one thing after having read all this, distances are deceptive and never trust Google. Google says it takes 5 hours and 45 minutes to get to Disneyland from my parent's house. It doesn't ever take that little amount of time, not even if driving at midnight. There are always stops, traffic jams, signals, and just about anything else to stop you. That being said, New Zealand is just as bad. Most roads are two-lane but they are treated like freeways...except when they aren't. And they aren't quite suddenly. Twisting roads, narrow curves, occasional one-lane bridges, bicyclists, slow-moving vehicles, traffic stops and signals, and trains are all just some of the obstacles to make Google Maps impossibly inaccurate. Christchurch to Dunedin: estimated at 4:30 hours, actually took around 6:00. Dunedin to Queenstown: 3:30, actually took 5:00. Queenstown to Christchurch: 6:00, actually took around 7:30. Distance estimates are so terrible we no longer can rely on them after this trip.

Another thing, with all these obstacles and such, everyone still drives at just about 100k/hr (62.5mph). That is in all the conditions listed above. And, perhaps more freighteningly, trucks drive that fast too. In California, trucks can drive a max legal speed of 55mph; here, it is almost 10 miles faster than that on undivided, two-lane roads. It's terrifying! I already don't like driving, especially on the left side of the road, but after this trip I like the idea even less. Toss in steep hills, heavy rain, and wind, and it's just a recipe for disaster. Kara doesn't mind driving, but doesn't want to do it full-time, so buses and airplane flights may be in store for us in the future. We'll see. In any case, be warned if you visit us here that driving may not be the most enjoyable experience in New Zealand.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

12 January 2015

The Khagan Weekly: Asthmatic Since 2014 (2:2, 01/12/2015)

Hay Fever of Bust!
So, my allergies have returned with a massive vengeance. What did I ever do to cause such annoyance? Despite having industrial-strength allergy meds shipped in from abroad, my nose is itchier than ever, my throat is constantly sore, and my eyes are always practically tearing up. Really, New Zealand, for all your beauty, you've got to learn to control your dandelion populations. They are really upsetting to me...and my gardens...and your visual splendour...

Phase II Afterword
Last week I said that all I had to do this past week was input a bunch of quotes in preparation for writing my first chapter of my thesis. One week later, the task is done, but it took until Friday to complete. That's right, it took five days to copy/paste over 130 pages of quotations. On the plus side, my thesis is quite well organised now, with each of six chapters separated into five sub-sections based largely on my quotes but also my thesis demands. The only problem is that I've sort of lost sight of what my actual conclusion is supposed to be. I will have to rediscover that in the next couple of weeks. The historiography section, which is about half the first chapter, is a little light on the historiographical information, partially because much of the material is in French and partially because I haven't really been able to collect all the historiographical stuff I want to include (I mean, I have another 2.5 years of writing this thing, I have time, right?). I assume my supervisor is aware that this section is going to be incomplete, but I'm not certain. I've never written a dedicated historiographical chapter or essay before, so this is new ground for me and I am getting literally zero guidance at this point.

Loaves of Brick and Hardtack
Two weeks ago I began a new sourdough starter and it came out great. The only problem has been that I can't possibly get the darn thing to work in any bread. I've been trying to make loaf rounds in the oven but the starter doesn't seem to be potent enough to get the yeast to rise. I'm not sure why, either, since it seems quite active when in its starter state. Yet once mixed, the bread just doesn't go up at all. I let it sit for 24 hours and it did nothing. Nothing. I baked it anyway and the bread actually tastes really good. REALLY good; not quite San Francisco sour-style, but it still has a nice tang to it. Unfortunately, the bread is so dense it's practically inedible. I'm working on improving the recipe, but the next batch will be using spelt flour rather than normal baking flour. This will add a negative element to the bread because spelt has much less gluten in it, which is what the starter yeast eats. Any advice from sourdough chefs out there would be greatly appreciated.

Lands Down Under-er
This week we travel to Queenstown near the south of the South Island. We're going down there for a week and dropping Niko off at the Cattery first. That way we can ensure he is safe and eating and everything. Queenstown is a major tourist trap, as is Dunedin, which we stop at along the way, so we're expecting high prices for everything. Fortunately, petrol is extremely cheap right now—it just dropped to $1.799/litre. It was around $2.39 when we got here. We spent a small fortune today upgrading the car for the journey, though. We got the tyres replaced only to find that all four wheels were terribly out of alignment. We also got an oil change and had a number of other things checked out. It cost us a small fortune to do all of this, but we feel safer now with the car.

Obviously you'll hear more about these adventures next week. I plan to still do my regular train blog and the next Khagan Weekly while there, so stay tuned.

The Uncertainty of Construction Work
Lastly, I just want to gripe briefly about construction work. It is everywhere in Christchurch and it is awful. It is noisy, it blocks roads and makes people late to school, and it unpredictably resumes after extended holidays. All along our ride to school today, construction had resumed. Apparently all the local firms took three weeks off for Christmas and New Years and restarted their efforts today. Roads were closed everywhere, while elsewhere they were down to single lanes. On top of that, the neighbour decided it would be fun to remove his concrete driveway at 8 this morning. Because, why not? A large tractor was actively destroying his yard as we left.

If you plan to visit us, we'll probably try to take you elsewhere. Christchurch was once the garden city of New Zealand, but it currently is one massive construction zone. The country may be beautiful, but this city is decidedly not. I hope that changes in the next few years because it is starting to bother me.

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.

04 January 2015

The Khagan Weekly: Lost in a Volcanic Caldera Since 2014 (2:1, 01/05/2015)

Akaroa, or The Halls of Hell
On Saturday this week we finally decided to venture forth to the south of Christchurch—an hour and a half to the south—to the picturesque tourist mecca of Akaroa. First, though, a bit of geography: south of Christchurch, there are a pair of extinct volcanoes that create a very odd protrusion into the otherwise flat Canterbury Plain. The northern caldera is the port town of Lyttleton, where Christchurch gets all of its goods from overseas. The town, though, got hit badly by the earthquake (it's the oldest part of Christchurch so had some 150-year-old buildings) and looks very industrial. Cruise ships decided after 2010 to redirect to the southern caldera with its more remote town of Akaroa. The town had been founded in 1840 by French settlers and a number of aspects of the town are decidedly French, including street names, but the British reasserted themselves pretty early on, so the town is still as British as ever. It also has become a magnet for tourism which, unfortunately, means there isn't a lot interesting there anymore. There are some hiking trails but they aren't that unique to ones located closer to the city. There are some cutesy shops, but I don't have any money and things are expensive here. There aren't, surprisingly, many things to do there except a few water sports and mini golfing. The town is split in two, with the cruise ship dock located on the opposite side of town from the commercial end. When we visited, a ship was in town and people were everywhere! Most probably thought we were with the ship. Ugh. All the fun stuff was near the terminal, but it was too far to walk to and all the parking spots were taken, so we simply left.

We may go back again, but it's a long drive to nowhere especially amazing. Perhaps that's one of the problems with New Zealand: there are so many awesome locales that they all get kind of watered down. It's unfortunate, but definitely true in this case. We did at least stop at a cheese factory and get some nice artisan cheese. Hmm...

A Fiery New Year
New Years' Eve this year was celebrated at North Hagley Park, the city's equivalent (or attempt at) the huge parks in London and Westminster. They had a free concert series at the park that ran until 12:30 a.m. and most of the songs played were American-ish rather than Kiwi. The few Kiwi songs they played were not especially memorable. They did have a Celtic Rock band play us into the new year, which was interesting; they were almost Ska in their style, but not quite. They needed a bagpipe, though, to really bring it home. We were happy to see fireworks at the stroke of midnight, however. That was something we're not used to in California because of all the fire restrictions. And it wasn't a short show, either; they just kept on going. And they were very near to the ground, which was slightly scary but also awesome—it rained firework ash on us for the next ten minutes. Overall, it was a fun start to the year and we discovered in the process that there is a free concert series that runs every Sunday afternoon at the park, so we'll be coming back weekly, it looks like (we already went this Sunday!).

More Heat in the Underworld
Speaking of fire, fireworks, calderas—it's been hot here. Easily in the 80˚s, which may not seem like much to some people, but without air conditioning in the houses, it's been a short-sleeves and shorts kind of summer. We still get the occasional cold spell or rainy day, but most days have not been very windy and have been much dryer than usual. I even got a little sunburn (don't tell Kara!). But it definitely helps in making it feel like summer here, and it also provides us with that strange feeling that something's not quite right. I mean, it's winter in the northern half of the globe, yet we're sweating down here. It's very strange. When I went to Australia and New Zealand when I was little, it was winter, which is mild here and in California, so it felt more normal. When we got here, Niko regrew his winter coat in double time only to have lost it over the past month (I think half of it is all over my shirt right now). Rain's on the forecast for a few days this week but hopefully it will be gone when we go on our trip next week. More on that to come in the next issue.

Phase II: Burning My Notes
I (literally) just finished writing the notes for the eighth book I've read in the past week for my thesis. It's a tough process browsing through a ton of books but never really getting to read them. It's a wonder what I could learn if I could read everything I have to cite for my thesis. In any case, the writing of my first chapter begins this week which means I also need to get all my notes aggregated together, sorted into appropriate sections, and then organized. I still am missing a lot of necessary material for this 100,000-word monster of a paper but I've got to start somewhere and the first draft of my first chapter is due on February 1st. Since I'll be gone a week during that period, it doesn't leave me with much time to organize and write. On top of that, I have my book to keep working on and French readings, as well as other random tasks. It's definitely becoming a busy summer for me.

On Capsicum
I have chili peppers! Okay, you knew that already, but they've actually reached maturity. Hot, fiery jalapeƱo peppers, red as a freshly-cooked lobster. So far I have two fully-red peppers and a little baby one that really matured a bit too early to be useful. But three others are showing signs of maturing (red stems at the bottom signaling they are down growing out) and I have about six large dark green peppers that could be safely picked. I'm planning on picking them tonight and pickling the lot of them so they can be preserved better. I hope to use them in my next batch of refried beans, which may be a while since we have a huge batch still in the freezer right now. In addition to my large and successful pepper tree, I have about a dozen smaller plants growing quickly in this heat. They'll need to be transplanted soon so they can truly thrive, but a few of them may already be reaching a point where flowers may bloom and become peppers, which is really awesome. I'll save some for all of you when you visit. (You are all visiting, right?).

The Khagan Weekly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in Russia. They prohibit everything there. Psh. Punks. Let's start a punt Putin day. That'd be fun.